Smokey’s BBQ is another Upper County gem that is well-worth the trip.

I almost made this just an Instagram post of drool-inducing pictures of succulent meat but then I decided that I have more that I want to say about Smokey’s BBQ than is appropriate for Instagram.

At their very cool location in South Cle Elum, adjacent to the train museum in the old train depot on the Iron Horse trail, Smokey’s offers BBQ that is pretty standard and dang delicious. We had a family meal for 2-3 people plus some garlic fries and it fed four adults and two kids for lunch. It included ribs, chicken, and another meat of your choice–we opted for the brisket–as well as two sides. It was all very, very good and is the kind of dining experience where you’ve barely even tasted your food before you’re trying to figure out when you can return.

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Family Feast for 2-3. Brisket, chicken, ribs, cornbread, mac and cheese, red beans and rice. 

What I want to say about Smokey’s is something that relates to my recent critical review of another establishment. In that review (I’m being intentionally vague but it’s easy to find), I urged all restaurants to make an effort to not include bad food on their menu, even if it’s something that they really want to serve. Smokey’s clearly understands this and I’ll explain why.

After seeing their menu online I was so excited that fried chicken is listed as their Sunday special. Fried chicken isn’t something I eat often but I like it enough that it’s one of several things that I learned to make for myself after not being able to find a good option in Kittitas County. I was disappointed when the cashier told me that they didn’t have fried chicken today but I was so glad that she explained why. It turns out they just released the new menu, including the fried chicken, but then decided that the batter recipe isn’t as good as they want it to be. So, get this: they decided not to serve it until it was up to their high standards. I appreciate that dedication to quality and I can’t wait to get my hands on the fried chicken that lives up to the rest of Smokey’s menu and their strong reputation.

I look forward to getting back to Smokey’s and enjoying that big patio on another gorgeous sunny day. It’s a really special place and I’m so glad to have finally tried it. One last note. If like me you ate at the ill-fated and short-lived Ellensburg location and weren’t particularly impressed, I implore you to head up to South Cle Elum and give them another chance.  

Smokey’s Bar-B-Que, 801 Milwaukee Ave, South Cle Elum, WA 98943.

http://www.smokeysbbq.com

I’m going to get a little saucy about Saucey.

 

I don’t want to write this but here I am.  I eat a lot of bad or unremarkable food around Kittitas County that never makes it onto my blog or social media because talking about good food is more fun and much more productive than shitting on hard working peoples’ failures.

I am not unbiased. I go into some dining experiences with great skepticism and even dread: for others I am buoyed by high hopes that I’ll get to write about the incredible new restaurant in town and maybe because of my writing more people will go enjoy that food and support a fledgling local business or an old one that is overlooked. Understandably, these early opinions I form are sometimes wrong and I have no problem admitting that. I’m rambling because I don’t want to get to the point but here goes.

I ate at Saucey, the new food truck parked at Whipsaw this weekend and it was stunningly bad. I sincerely do not want to slam them, especially while their venture is so young, but I just can’t keep quiet because I believe there is a something to be learned here.  I wanted so badly to like this food but instead of fun bar food with a saucy gimmick I found almost everything to be bizarre, sloppy, confusing, and in one case, inedible. After a long time with the rather perplexing menu we decided to share a large order of Grilled Falafel(ish) Cakes, three sliders–Korean BBQ, The Classic with beef, and the Firebird–and the Little Cheesy off the kid’s menu for the kid.

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Slider with slaw and falafel cakes.

The falafel cakes were one of the worst things I can remember eating. They reminded me of the failed experiment of a parent desperate to get their picky kids to eat vegetables. The result was gluey, mushy, and bland even with the accompanying tzatziki sauce (which should be anything but bland). Though I’ll grant them a bit of credit for calling them “Falafel(ish)” and “not your ordinary falafel,” they are an insult to falafel and it’s hard to understand why anyone who had ever eaten or even Googled falafel would call them that.

Moving on to the sliders. They were mostly fine. The flavors were alright but muddled to the point that it was difficult to decipher exactly what we were eating. The real killer on this plate was the pile of flavorless slaw that overwhelmed everything. I love a big ol’ heap of slaw but this was just a pile of chunky cabbage supposedly tossed with the lemon/dill tzatziki but if there was any seasoning it was undetectable. It was all very clunky but generally inoffensive.

The Little Cheesy from the kids menu was just one of the yummy rolls grilled with a fat slice of cheddar and it was by far the best thing we ate.

I’m writing this because I believe there is something to be learned here. My first suggestion is for all eateries, and not just directed at Saucey and it’s so deceptively simple: don’t put bad food on your menu. Specifically, no matter how much you want to have falafel/Eggs Benedict/whatever on your menu you need to honestly evaluate if it’s something you AND your staff can do well and consistently. Stick to what you know and what your kitchen equipment and crew can handle. There’s no shame in omitting something from a menu until you can find a way to make it work.

Finally, I want to offer Saucey some constructive feedback because I believe they can turn this around and make their vision work. I like the sauce gimmick but asking customers to choose from so many sauces while they order will only lead to confusion, decision fatigue, and buyer’s remorse. My suggestion is to simplify, simplify, simplify. Don’t douse each slider with two different sauces but instead present a pared-down version of the dishes and allow your customers to dress them as they please from the selection of sauces available on a table outside of the truck. Make having a bunch of sauces fun for the eater, not a burden.

I acknowledge that Saucey faces a difficult task in filling a void left by The Red Pickle, which will be hard to live up to. I also recognize that they have been open for a very short amount of time and could certainly improve. However, the food options available to us in Kittitas County are expanding and a bad first impression could really kill a business around here. There are a lot of real pros opening new restaurants and expanding right now and it’s going to take a lot more than what I’ve seen for Saucey to compete. I will give them a second chance but I can’t say the same for everyone.

As always, the beer at Whipsaw is the best in Ellensburg and their rotating cider selection was wonderful so it’s still very much worth a visit to their taphouse.  

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The Red Pickle gets Boozy!

I didn’t even realize that I had a martini-glass-shaped void in my life until I had a few– ok, more than a few– cocktails at the new Red Pickle on Thursday night. I now realize that it had been a very long time since I have had expertly and thoughtfully crafted cocktails at a restaurant in Ellensburg and I am absolutely thrilled that Mario has emerged from his food truck to bring the people of Ellensburg the Red Pickle House and all of its boozy and delicious glory.

The food is familiar to those who have eaten at the Red Pickle food truck and lends itself well to the bright and modern gastropub feel of the new place. My Buttermilk Fried Chicken Sandwich was crunchy, balanced, and overflowing with flavor: exactly what I needed to soak up some serious drinks.

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Fried Chicken Sandwich and Guajillo Pork Tacos (my friend ate all of those before I could steal a bite even though those are some of my fries on her plate. You know who you are.)

Speaking of drinks…Mario makes wonderful food but that man was put on this earth to create drinks and own a bar. The cocktails at Red Pickle are truly original and very exciting. My first order was the Smoked Maple Manhattan, which features smoked bourbon and house brandied drunk cherries. Almost all of the cocktails include house-made elements such as infused or smoked liquors. Up next was the Earl Grey Infused Gin, mixed with grapefruit, honey, and orange. I keep trying to put my finger on what it is that this drink reminds me of, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it just tastes so right that I feel like I have, or at least should have tasted it before.

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From top clockwise: Rudolf’s Redemption Cider from Ellensburg Brewing Company/Tilted Tree Cider, Strawberry Balsamic Vodka, and Smoked Maple Manhattan.

I had the privilege of sampling almost everything on the signature cocktails menu and nothing disappointed. The Strawberry Balsamic Vodka was among my favorites and if you’re not familiar with this flavor combination then I strongly recommend you get yourself acquainted with this drink. But, if you’re more of a classic cocktail, beer, or wine person then you’ll still find lots to love. Only the bar area is off-limits to minors so bring the whole family.

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Earl Grey Infused Gin. 

The location at 301 N Pine is that odd little building that used to house D&M coffee and then Roxie Allen Arts. I spent a lot of time there when it was the coffee shop and I’m so impressed by what Mario and his team have done with the building. It’s now cheery, open, and sophisticated without a hint of pretense, much like Mario himself, who moves around that bar with the certainty of someone who is doing exactly what they were meant to do.

The Red Pickle, 301 N Pine St, Ellensburg, WA

My Favorite Lunch (should be your favorite too)

There’s a place in Roslyn that I’ve loved since the first time I ate there. I don’t go as often as I would like because I live in Ellensburg but whenever I do, it just feels like home. That place is The Red Bird Cafe.

Red Bird’s first appeal is that it is without a doubt the most kid-friendly place to eat in the county. The back two rooms contain a number of toys and activities for children so I don’t have to worry about keeping a squirmy kid in his seat while we wait for food and I have the option to linger at a table and actually enjoy my meal or coffee while he plays. I can’t think of any other occasion that I have lingered at a restaurant since becoming a parent over three years ago. As an aside for the my childless readers, no one dislikes rude or obnoxious kids in restaurants more than their parents. Plus, they have reasonably-priced kid’s meals with actual nutritional value.

For all of the above reasons, I would probably patronize the Red Bird Cafe even if the food was just OK but I would annoy my dining companions and grumble about how much better it could be. Luckily, the food is excellent. I can’t tell you my favorite menu item because it would be like picking a favorite child (except that’s a bad example because a three-year old is no one’s favorite child). They have the best sandwich menu around and the salads are very, very good. It’s the kind of place where you can have a filling but healthy salad and a cup of vegan soup or you can get a no-fats-barred cheesesteak. It’s the best kind of place.

Most of The Red Bird Cafe’s offerings are standards with a twist that sets them apart. The BLT, for example, is served on a house-made croissant and is so much better for it. There’s a reason almost no one makes their own croissants: it’s because they’re freaking hard to do right. Red Bird seems to do everything right. The Glondo is a pretty basic sandwich but the assortment of cured Italian meats from Glondo’s in Cle Elum make it exceptional. I could go on but I think you get the idea.

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Pictured clockwise from left to right: kid’s grilled cheese, The BLT, The Glondo. All delicious despite the terrible picture. The bill for this meal was $21.

It would be a shame to pass up this opportunity to declare my love for Glondo’s Sausage Company and Italian Market in Cle Elum because I feel like not enough people know about them. Their cured meats are insane and the hotdogs made me realize that I like hotdogs. Try the take and bake pizzas too. Actually, try everything.

Back to the Red Bird Cafe. I know some people around here roll their eyes at restaurants catering to special diets but I think it’s always a smart move as long as it’s done in way that doesn’t compromise the food. My favorite example of this is the corned BEET reuben that Red Bird offers in addition to the usual pastrami version. Y’all know I love a reuben and I’m certainly not a vegetarian but I order the beet reuben as often as pastrami because it’s its own beautiful creation that just happens to be vegetarian. Many of their other menu items are naturally or can be made vegan, vegetarian, or dairy free, including the scratch-made pastries. Or you can get a big, cheesy, beefy cheesesteak. There’s something for everyone.

I have only tried their breakfast once and it was when the menu was brand new so it was at least a year ago. I remember it being good but a little rough around the edges. I imagine it’s been refined since then but I can’t confirm. I’ll let you know when I do.

In summary, I like the Red Bird Cafe; it’s my favorite place for a well-priced lunch…probably in all of Kittitas County. It seems to be flourishing since changing ownership last year and I couldn’t be more pleased.

 

The Red Bird Cafe

102 E Pennsylvania Avenue

Roslyn, WA

Dakota Cafe is a Downtown Classic

This one is overdue and won’t be the most detailed review I’ve ever written, but I still want to talk about Dakota Cafe.

Dakota Cafe is low-key, local, and a solid choice for lunch in downtown Ellensburg. I know that they offer breakfast and dinner as well, but this place just screams “lunch.”

I have tried a handful of sandwiches, quiches, soups, and pastries from Dakota Cafe and they have all met my expectations. Their food is always fresh and well-crafted and I have never been displeased. However, almost everything seems just slightly underseasoned or lacking a bit of flare that would take the dish from good to craveable.

For example, my brie, ham, and apple chutney panini would have been amazing with a more flavorful chutney. Better yet, replace the chutney with pickled or marinated thinly-sliced apples and add a sweet spicy pepper jelly. There’s nothing wrong with how it is, but it’s just not as good as it could be.

Perhaps it’s a choice and my tastes are not what they are playing to. I still love Dakota Cafe, and the people and environment are truly lovely. When I want a casual but classy sit-down meal in Ellensburg that’s fresh and healthy-ish, then Dakota Cafe is very near the top of my list.

There’s something really special in the Upper County.

I need to be frank with you all for a minute: writing about food in Kittitas County can be challenging at times. It’s not a lack of good food that gets me, it’s that few people and seem to care enough to strive to serve food that is truly great. I’ve even gone so far as to wonder if my standards have slipped over time to the point that good enough has actually become good enough. I don’t believe that’s true but it’s something I worry about and have to periodically examine, as I would regardless of where I live and eat.  I love living in Ellensburg and I love visiting our various eating establishments and writing about them for you to read; and I’m so grateful that you read what I write.

There are, of course, a handful of restaurants that make some really excellent food and one such place is an exciting newcomer to the Upper County. I ate at Orchard in Cle Elum this past Saturday and was blown away by the quality and scope of the entire experience. Their website details their philosophy and origins so I won’t bother to rehash it for you.  I dragged my entire family along and each and every one of us walked away from our meal feeling deeply satisfied and invigorated. They even went far above my expectations to accommodate my over-tired three year old. Orchard appears trendy, pretentious, and perhaps out of place in Kittitas County but I assure you that it is none of those things (ok, maybe a tad trendy but not to its detriment).

The restaurant itself is warm and beautiful, with an inviting lounge and bar area that serves a pub menu and even offers happy hour. The main dining area has an open kitchen and a lot of seating so that you don’t feel too watched over as can happen in smaller restaurants. Service is friendly, attentive, and prompt. But you want to hear about the food, right?

Orchard’s menu changes constantly based on what’s in season so don’t expect to find this exact food when you go, but here’s what we were offered that night:

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Yes, please.

 

We were a large group and so we ordered a few of each of the starters and one of each of the pasta dishes and entrees, besides the steak because we had that for dinner the previous night, to share. Everything at Orchard is scratch made, insanely fresh, and f*cking delicious. I won’t go on and on about everything because who knows if it will even be on the menu when you or I next visit but I need to mention of few standouts, though I’m really not exaggerating when I say that it was all excellent.

The cauliflower is one of their signature dishes so I expect it will remain a menu regular and I implore you to try it. That lightly fried, and doused in sweet pickled golden raisins (AKA the best raisins) cauliflower is maybe the best I’ve ever had and I’ll probably spend the rest of my life trying to recreate it at home.

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Image shamelessly stolen from Orchard Restaurant’s Facebook page.

The house-made fresh pastas are clearly a labor of love and they really deliver. My personal favorite was the beef shank ravioli with horseradish. They were truly exceptional in both flavor and texture.

The lamb baked in hay seems to be a frequent flyer on the menu and for good reason. It’s cooked by nestling the lamb in a bed of hay which is then set on fire and finished in the oven. It’s beautifully primitive and imparts a unique earthy flavor to the meat. The accompanying polenta was addictive and kale rounded out a perfectly rustic and satisfying dish.

Orchard does really amazing things to rabbit. I don’t eat rabbit that often (who really does, I suppose?) but it’s something I enjoy ordering at fancy restaurants. Orchard’s chicken fried rabbit sounded too good to be true but it was just plain amazing. I wish I had a photo to share but it’s two big fat rabbit legs, fried to a deep brown and drizzled with a spicy honey glaze. It’s a pretty simple dish but it’s a case of impeccable ingredients and flawless execution creating something extraordinary.

I can’t end this review without talking about the cocktails. I’m going to mostly let the menu speak for itself but I did sample a few and they were all exceptional. If I weren’t eighty-five months pregnant right now I would have ordered more than my share but I’ll just have to return to Orchard for happy hour with a designated driver at some point in the not so distant future and tell you all about it.

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Behold.

Expect to invest a bit of money and time in dining at Orchard but it will be worth it.

 

Orchard
212 E First (21.69 mi)
Cle Elum, Washington 98922
(509) 852-2900

I ate at The Early Bird…

…and it was good.

I decided to take myself out to breakfast this morning and finally try the newest addition to Ellensburg’s breakfast scene. I prefer to write about restaurants after trying several dishes, ideally during more than one visit, but I was dining solo this morning and wasn’t going to order more than one meal or ask strangers for bites of their meals. So, it’s possible that literally everything else on the menu besides what I ate is complete garbage and I will have really let you down but I’ll stake my reputation on that not being true.

I ordered what I’m told is the most popular dish: the Scramble Bowl. It’s a bowl with diced potatoes, scrambled eggs, bacon, cheese, and I added the pork chili verde. The entire menu is enticing so I kept second guessing my choice as I waited for my food and drank my very nice cold brew coffee. Should I have gotten the breakfast grilled cheese? How did I not notice the breakfast burrito? I owe it to my readers to try the breakfast salad, right? These were trying times.

Then my food arrived and all was right in the world (haha, if only).

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MMMMMMM

It was hearty and meaty and flavorful but not at all heavy. I ate every last bite. I can’t wait to try more of their food as well as the seasonal and regular mimosa offerings.

The greatest criticism I’ve heard of The Early Bird is that they get crowded, food can take awhile to get out of their limited kitchen, and seating is scarce. There were a few large groups occupying the lovely outdoor seating this morning and I snagged one of the last remaining inside tables but still my food arrived in about 20 minutes, as did that of the table next to me who were warned that it may take up to 30 minutes. So while The Early Bird certainly has a few handicaps related to their space, my observation is that the friendly staff work well with what they have and aren’t over-extending themselves. You might wait a bit but I think you’ll find it worth your time.

I had a very nice first experience at The Early Bird and I’m sure it will not be my last. I really appreciate the youthful approach and willingness to serve non-traditional breakfast. If you can’t live without a traditional lumberjack breakfast–or do you call it farmer’s breakfast here?– of bacon and/or sausage, potatoes, eggs, and toast for $6.95 then The Early Bird might not be your joint. That’s ok. More for me.